PINEHURST, N.C. — The looks of frustration and exasperation that had been missing from Martin Kaymer’s stoic face the first two days of the 114th US Open finally appeared on Saturday.
Kaymer’s record-tying six-shot lead? Well, that disappeared. But not by much.
Rolling in a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole — his first birdie of the day — Kaymer salvaged a 2-over-par 72 on Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2. It gave him a three-round total of 8 under, and a five-stroke lead over a pair of Americans, Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton.
“I didn’t play as good as the first two days, but I kept it very well together,” Kaymer said. “I felt like today if you have 25 or 30 feet on every green, you’ve done well. The [US Golf Association] put the pins in very, very tough positions.”
After a birdie barrage the first two days, Pinehurst bit back on Saturday. Thirteen players began the third round under par. Only six finished the day there. Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson were six shots back at 2 under, with Brandt Snedeker another stroke back at 1 under. Three more players — Matt Kuchar, Brooks Koepka, and Kevin Na — were at even par, so eight players are within eight shots of Kaymer’s lead with 18 holes to play.
Fowler and Compton played their way back into the tournament with matching 67s, on a day where the scoring average climbed to 73.82, made tougher because of devilish pin placements and a No. 2 course that is playing exactly the way the US Golf Association wants: hard, dry, and firm.
Only the best shots are finding the fairway, and only the best-judged approach shots are staying on the crowned putting surfaces. Miss the green, and saving par is hardly a guarantee.
In other words, it tests all facets of one’s game. That, in essence, is what the US Open is all about.
Kaymer made it look easy the first two days, carding a pair of 65s that set the tournament’s 36-hole scoring record and featured only one bogey. He made five bogeys on Saturday, and didn’t have a birdie until the last hole, which gave up 12 birdies on the day and played third-easiest.
Kaymer did roll in a short eagle putt at the par-5 fifth hole, which gave him a seven-shot lead, his largest of the day.
But just when it looked like Kaymer was going to unofficially win the tournament on Saturday, two things began to happen: Compton and Fowler started to gain ground, and Kaymer started to look human.
“I made a couple bad swings on the first nine, put myself in bad positions, but I only [shot 1 over on the front], which is OK. One birdie and one eagle, so I’m happy,” Kaymer said. “Eight under after three rounds is a good score.”
Kaymer was tied for the lead after 54 holes at last month’s Players Championship, then went on to shoot 71 and win by one.
He’ll be trying to win his second major championship on Sunday, but with a fleet of Americans (plus Stenson, a Swede) hoping to pounce if he slips.
“It was all about kind of moving forward today,” said Fowler, who also shot a third-round 67 at last year’s US Open, which got him into the top 10 after three rounds at Merion (he eventually tied for 10th, his best US Open finish in five tries).
This 67 pushed him into second, and because he finished his round before Compton, he’ll be paired with Kaymer in Sunday’s final twosome.
Fowler and Compton had similar scorecards, with five birdies each, and each made birdies on back-nine par-3s: Fowler at No. 17, and Compton at the 15th. They were the only two players to break par in the third round.
Saturday’s cooler temperatures thrilled Compton, a 34-year-old from Miami who is on his third heart. He’s twice been the recipient of heart transplants (1992, 2008), and is spending his third straight season on the PGA Tour, looking for his first victory.
With all Compton’s been through, winning the US Open on Father’s Day (Compton and his wife have a young daughter, Petra) might be one of golf’s most amazing, inspirational stories.
“I’m just really happy to be here,” said Compton, who has appeared in only one other major championship, the 2010 US Open. “When I was walking down 18, it’s like you try to keep yourself focused, but you’re emotional and you’re in the competition. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Compton, Fowler, and the others will be chasing Kaymer, who is trying to go wire-to-wire at the US Open, which Rory McIlroy did in 2011.
But large final-round leads don’t always lead to victory.
McIlroy failed to close at the 2011 Masters, Johnson at the 2010 US Open, Nick Watney at the 2010 PGA Championship, when Kaymer came from off the pace and won in a playoff.
He’s the one being pursued now, though.
“If you have four shots, five shots, six shots, at the end of the day, if you play a golf course like this, it can be gone very quickly. You could see it today. I made three bogeys the first six holes,” Kaymer said. “The challenge will be to keep going and not try to defend anything. Because if you try to defend, then you’re not free enough. You don’t swing as free.
“That will be the challenge. We’ll see how I will react tomorrow, how the body feels, and how I handle the situation.”
We’ll be watching.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.